Human Rights Developments
The government's attempts to exclude six parties from the country's first parliamentary elections since independence failed under international pressure in September, resulting in the Ministry of Justice registering the Popular Front Party and the Social Democratic Party, among others. This action followed weeks of systematic government intimidation and harassment aimed at preventing people from signing party petitions required for registration, a practice that continued until the end of the petition period. On October 17, the government excluded Musavat, one of the oldest and largest opposition parties in Azerbaijan, claiming that 5,000 of its signatures were false.
The increasingly repressive atmosphere in Azerbaijan canceled out the gains made by the registration of some opposition political parties. Arrests and criminal investigations of party leaders in 1995 seemed aimed at eliminating President Aliyev's political opponents. Most dramatic of these was the September 19 arrest of Tofiq Qasimov, foreign minister under the Popular Front government from May 1992 through July 1993, a prominent member of the Musavat Party and an outspoken critic of President Aliyev. Qasimov was accused of providing "ideological support" to the March coup attempt. The government's shoddy evidence in this case includes a speech Qasimov made, in which he said that the Aliyev government's strategy of eliminating the opposition was likely to give rise to illegal forms of opposition. Other opposition leaders in custody included Social Democratic Party Deputy Chair Aypara Aliyev, in pre-trial detention for more that one year in connection with a 1994 coup attempt; former Interior Minister Iskander Hamidov, sentenced in September to fourteen years' imprisonment for abusing military authority and theft of state property (his lawyer was arrested one month before trial for allegedly striking a police officer in 1994); and Popular Front leaders Arif Pashaev and Fakhraddin Safarov, in connection with the loss of Shusha and Lachin to ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1992. Former Defense Minister Rahim Qaziyev was sentenced to death in absentia under the same charges, having escaped prison in September 1994.
The government began a new pattern of harassing family members of opposition politicians. Police arrested and beat relatives of those arrested in the wake of the March coup as they sought assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the U.S. embassy. Police searched the home of Jovdan Rovshanov, deceased leader of the March coup attempt, without a warrant and stole family valuables. (In a positive move, President Aliyev ordered the arrest of the sixteen officers involved) On August 6, Baku police searched the home of Rahman Qaziyev (Rahim Qaziyev's son) and took him, his wife, and his one-year-old child into custody. While the latter were released the following day, Qaziyev remained in custody for allegedly assisting his brother's escape. The same day police arrested the wife and five-year-old child of Rahab Qaziev (Rahim Qaziyev's brother), effectively holding them hostage for three days, until Rahab Qaziyev returned to Baku, and one week later arrested two of Qaziev's cousins in Sheki. Police also repeatedly threatened to arrest the wife of ethnic Talysh leader Aliakram Hummatov (who fiercely opposed President Aliyev's 1993 bid for power and sought to create an autonomous republic for the Talysh people) and evicted her and her three children from their home, driving her into hiding. Her two brothers received fifteen-day administrative sentences.
The government strictly controlled critical speech in the press and in public fora. Government censors had to approve each article before any newspaper went to press, a Soviet-era practice, often resulting in large blank spots in newspaper columns. In March, four journalists from the satirical newspaper Cheshme were arrested and charged with insulting the honor and dignity of President Aliyev (Article 188-6 of the criminal code) in connection with a political cartoon. The Baku District Court refused to release them on their own recognizance (even though two of the men needed serious medical attention), and on October 19 sentenced them to two, three, and five years respectively. On November 11, on the eve of parliamentary elections, President Aliyev amnestied them. At least one other individual faced similar charges during 1995, but as of this writing had not been tried. In June, two journalists from the Massaly district received eight-year prison sentences reportedly for bribing $400 from a government official. The charges, which did not justify such a harsh sentence, appeared specious, as the journalists had reportedly written satirical articles in the weekly Ari (The Bee) about the same official.
The prosecutor's office investigated Leila Yunusova, chair of the Independent Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, for telling a political joke, which it interpreted as calling for the violent overthrow of the government, at a public forum. Police raided the opposition daily Azydlyg in October, allegedly claiming to be searching for weapons.
Despite minor skirmishes, both parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict generally respected the cease-fire signed in May 1994. Azerbaijan released thirty-five Armenian prisoners of war following the release of twenty-seven Azeris by the Armenian authorities. The Karabakh Armenian authorities also released at least twenty Azeris in June and July. Still, the fate of hundreds of persons missing and detained during the conflict remained uncertain.
The Right To Monitor
More positively, the U.S. embassy in 1995 led the international community in criticizing the government's failure to register the Popular Front Party. At an August 10 press conference, a spokesperson urged the Aliyev government to reconsider the registration, a strategy that, in combination with private démarches by the U.S. and European embassies, proved successful. U.S. Ambassador Richard Kauzlarich reportedly raised human rights issues at each of his private meetings with President Aliyev.
U.S. humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan, desperately needed to support the approximately 750,000 internally displaced from the Nagorno-Karabakh war, remained limited to grants to nongovernmental organizations: on June 29, Congress rejected legislation that countered the Clinton administration's request for more humanitarian aid.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki